Since his lawyer admitted Tsarnaev’s guilt, why didn’t he plead guilty?

March 5, 2015

Since his lawyer, Judy Clarke, admitted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s guilt during her opening statement yesterday in the Boston Marathon bombing trial, why didn’t he plead guilty?

Many people have been asking this question in comments to news stories and blogs. The answer is the defense offered to plead guilty, if the prosecution would agree to drop the death penalty. The prosecution refused, so the defense decided to use the guilt/innocence phase of the trial to introduce evidence that they believe mitigates or reduces his culpability for the bombings relative to his older brother Tamerlan, whom the defense claims was the principal instigator or moving force who came up with idea and put it into effect.

Mitigation is not a defense to the crimes charged. Mitigation is any evidence about the defendant and the crime he committed, including the exercise of mercy, that calls for a sentence of less than death. As a matter of law, for example, a person who conspires with another to commit a crime, is just as guilty as the person who actually commits the crime, even if he is not present when the crime is committed. Even if he is present, that does not mean that he deserves or will receive the same sentence.

There is no crime, no matter how offensive, heinous or depraved that automatically merits the death penalty. Instead, jurors have to weigh the evidence admitted in aggravation (i.e., evidence about the crime and the defendant’s prior criminal record of convictions) against the evidence admitted in mitigation and decide whether the evidence in aggravation so outweighs the evidence in mitigation that a sentence of death is merited.

Evidence about the crime committed can also qualify as evidence in mitigation. For example, in a multiple defendant case such as the Boston Marathon bombing case, a defendant’s minor or minimal role in comparison to a defendant who plays a major or supervisory role is definitely a mitigating factor. The defense wants to use the guilt/innocence phase of the trial to establish that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was the instigator, the committed jihadi who was the planner and the energetic force behind the scheme to detonate two IDEs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. They want to elicit evidence from prosecution witnesses, including law enforcement and his former friends testifying under oath that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was a young, immature and rather typical American college kid who never would have involved himself in the crazy scheme but for his older brother who seduced him with tales of revolution, retribution and immortality in the service of God.

I have referred to this strategy as a ‘slow motion guilty plea.’ Dzhokhar has a Sixth Amendment right to go to trial, even if he is guilty. Guilty or innocent, every defendant in a criminal case has the right to force the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. What Judy Clarke said in opening statement is not evidence. The government still has the burden of proof. She believes that eliciting mitigating evidence by cross examination during the trial from witnesses testifying under oath will have greater impact than presenting the evidence in a penalty phase after the jury has decided the case. I agree because I have done this myself. In other words, timing matters.

I would never advise a client to plead guilty to a death penalty offense, unless the prosecution agreed to drop the death penalty. I believe it would be malpractice to do that.

Judy Clarke plans to use the trial to save his life.


Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Death Penalty Trial Started Today

January 5, 2015

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev goes on trial for his life today in federal court in the so-called Boston Marathon Bomber case. First up will be jury selection, which is expected to take about three to four weeks with the trial expected to last until late May or June. The Court will be attempting to seat a jury of twelve, plus six alternates, who can devote the next six months of their lives to fairly and impartially listening to the evidence and deciding the case. Given extensive pretrial publicity and a consuming regional interest in the case, the Court may discover that it cannot find 18 people who have not prejudged the case. If that happens, the Court will have to move the trial to another district in the United States.

Meanwhile, CNN is reporting today that the government rejected a defense offer to plead guilty in return for a sentence of life without parole.

The Court has summoned over 1200 people to report over the course of the next three days at a rate of 250 people per half-day session. At each session, the prospective jurors will be given a questionnaire in which they will be directed to write down what, if anything, they recall and disclose if they have formed any opinions about the bombing and Tsarnaev’s guilt or innocence. They will also be asked to state their views about the death penalty. Copies of the completed questionnaires will be provided to counsel. Voir dire probably will begin next week after counsel have reviewed the questionnaires.

The jury selection process will take much longer than usual because the prospective jurors must be death qualified. That has to happen before the trial starts because, if the defendant is convicted, the same jury will have to decide whether to sentence the defendant to death or life without possibility of parole. By death qualification, I mean eliminating all prospective jurors who would automatically sentence the defendant to death or to life without possibility of parole without weighing the evidence admitted in mitigation against the evidence admitted in aggravation as required by the jury instructions. Opposition to the death penalty in the United States is highest in the Boston area. Therefore, do not be surprised if half or more of the prospective jurors are excused for cause because of their opposition to the death penalty. Since those prospective jurors tend to be better than others on reasonable doubt, you can reasonably expect the jury to be conviction prone.

For more information about the importance of death-qualifying a jury and how the defense will do it, please read:

Death Penalty Cases are Won or Lost During Jury Selection

Using the Colorado Method of Jury Selection in Tsarnaev Death Penalty Trial

Let’s take a brief look at the government’s case.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is accused of conspiring with his brother Tamerlan to assemble, place and detonate two IED’s (improvised explosive devices) near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The indictment alleges that the two explosions killed a child and two adults and injured scores of other people. They also are accused of ambushing and shooting to death an MIT campus police officer four days later in a failed attempt to steal his gun and with carjacking a Mercedes sedan and kidnapping the driver who escaped on foot when they stopped for gas. The driver called 911 and provided information that enabled the police to find the Mercedes and the brothers in Watertown via GPS. A dramatic shootout ensued that ended with Dzhokhar running over his brother with the Mercedes and escaping into the night. The indictment alleges that he abandoned vehicle a few blocks away and hid in a trailered boat parked in a backyard. The owner of the boat discovered him there and called 911. Police responded quickly and, after shooting up the boat, they arrested him.

If the jury finds Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty, the biggest obstacle I see to an LWOP sentence is the death of the 8-year-old child because the jury probably decided that he intentionally placed the backpack containing the IED close to the child. If so, that act is absolutely chilling and the most difficult act to forgive. To make matters worse, his sister lost a leg.

It’s difficult to imagine the emotional impact of witnessing a child’s violent death. I still suffer PTSD from looking at crime scene and autopsy photos of dead children. This jury will get to see the boy die and it will be difficult for them to be merciful, especially if they believe in the death penalty.

Dzhokhar scrawled this note on a wall inside the boat,

The U.S. Government is killing our innocent civilians; I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished; We Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all; Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam…. stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.

Judy Clarke and David Bruck have their work cut out for them.

For more information about the lawyers who make up the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel, go here.


Using Colorado Method of Jury Selection in Tsarnaev Death Penalty Trial

January 2, 2015

Friday, January 2, 2015

Good afternoon:

Jury selection in Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death penalty trial is scheduled to start in federal court in Boston on Monday morning. Today I want to introduce readers to the Colorado Method of jury selection in a capital case. Many lawyers have used it to save lives, including myself, and I am reasonably certain that Tsarnaev’s defense team will use it.

18 USC 3593(e)(3) provides in pertinent part,

[T]he jury . . . shall consider whether all the aggravating factor or factors found to exist sufficiently outweigh all the mitigating factor or factors found to exist to justify a sentence of death, or, in the absence of a mitigating factor, whether the aggravating factor or factors alone are sufficient to justify a sentence of death. Based upon this consideration, the jury by unanimous vote . . . shall recommend whether the defendant should be sentenced to death, to life imprisonment without possibility of release or some other lesser sentence.

This statute requires the jury to decide whether the evidence in aggravation (evidence about the crime committed and its impact on the victims) outweighs the evidence in mitigation (evidence about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s youth and immaturity and how he was influenced by his dominant older brother and coconspirator Tamerlan Tsarnaev) and unanimously recommend “whether the defendant should be sentenced to death, to life imprisonment without possibility of release or some other lesser sentence.”

The key word is ‘unanimously.’

What happens if the jury is not unanimous?

18 USC 3594 provides,

Upon a recommendation under section 3593 (e) that the defendant should be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without possibility of release, the court shall sentence the defendant accordingly. Otherwise, the court shall impose any lesser sentence that is authorized by law. Notwithstanding any other law, if the maximum term of imprisonment for the offense is life imprisonment, the court may impose a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of release.

In other words, it only takes one juror to vote for LWOP instead of death to avoid a death sentence.

The Colorado Method was designed to maximize the probability of persuading at least one juror to vote against the death penalty. Michael Rubenstein describes the method this way:

The Colorado Method of capital voir dire is a structured approach to capital jury selection that is being used successfully in state and federal jurisdictions across the United States. Colorado Method capital voir dire follows several simple principles: (1) jurors are selected based on their life and death views only; (2) prodeath jurors (jurors who will vote for a death sentence) are removed utilizing cause challenges, and attempts are made to retain potential life-giving jurors; (3) pro-death jurors are questioned about their ability to respect the decisions of the other jurors, and potential life-giving jurors are questioned about their ability to bring a life result out of the jury room; and (4) peremptory challenges are prioritized based on the prospective jurors’ views on punishment.

Readers who have served on a jury in a non-death penalty case may recall that they were instructed to attempt to reach a unanimous verdict. That instruction cannot be given in the penalty phase of a capital case. Instead, jurors are instructed to vote their conscience after fully and fairly considering all of the evidence.

Therefore, the Colorado Method involves conditioning each juror to,

(1) realize that their decision will determine if the defendant lives or dies;

(2) accept full responsibility for their decision

(3) vote their conscience; and

(4) respect the rights of others to make up their own minds.

As in most death penalty trials, the outcome of the Tsarnaev trial likely will be determined in jury selection before the first witness testifies for the prosecution.


Tsarnaev: Death penalty cases are won or lost during jury selection

December 29, 2014

Monday, December 29, 2014

Good evening:

Most death penalty lawyers will tell you that a death penalty case is won (i.e., LWOP) or lost (i.e., death sentence) during jury selection. That is because we have seen and done it all and have generally mastered the art of trying cases so that we know to a reasonable certainty whether the jury will convict or acquit the client.

Today we are going to learn about and discuss jury selection in a federal death penalty trial. As you will soon discover, jury selection is more aptly described as deselection. Each side attempts to get rid of the prospective jurors they do not want by challenging them for cause or by peremptory challenge.

1) Challenge for Cause: No limit to the number of challenges, but you have to satisfy the judge that the prospective juror whom you challenge cannot fairly and impartially try the case or follow the court’s instructions. Your challenge will be denied, if you fail to convince the judge.

2) Peremptory Challenge: Each side gets 20 challenges. You don’t have to give a reason to support your challenge, but you cannot use your challenges to exclude prospective jurors solely on the basis of race, gender or religion. For example, the prosecution cannot use peremptory challenges to exclude Muslims. They would have to genuinely have other reasons or the challenge would be denied. The defense has a pending motion to increase the number of peremptory challenges to 30 per side because of extensive pretrial publicity. The government opposes the motion and it will likely be denied since the rule is quite specific about 20.

Jurors will be questioned in three ways. First, they will be asked to fill out a questionnaire. Then they will questioned together as a group and thereafter individually, depending on their answers to some of the questions on the questionnaire or during group voir dire. BTW, voir dire means to question. Attorney voir dire occurs when the lawyer do the questioning.

1,000 prospective jurors have been summoned in the Tsarnaev case. The goal is to seat a jury of 12, plus alternates who will well and truly try the case according to the instructions given by the court.

The first task in the selection process is to go through the questionnaires and excuse people who cannot serve because of the length of the trial, economic hardship, poor health, bias (related to or know victims, witnesses, lawyers or court personnel), prepaid vacations, etc. This usually reduces the pool of prospective jurors by about 50% or more.

Since this is a highly publicized death penalty case, the two major areas of inquiry during voir dire will be: (1) effect of pretrial publicity on ability to fairly and impartially try the case based only on the evidence introduced in court and, assuming the defendant is found guilty, (2) effect of opinions about the death penalty on a juror’s ability to follow the jury instructions that require weighing the aggravating evidence and mitigating evidence in deciding whether to sentence the defendant to death or to LWOP. Jurors will be questioned individually out of the presence of the others to avoid influencing them with their responses regarding these topics and possibly religious beliefs, since Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is allegedly a Muslim jihadist.

More specifically,

1) Pretrial publicity: The test is not whether someone has heard or read about the case. The test is whether they have formed an opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused such that they would not be able to fairly and impartially try the case. They will be excused for cause, if the answer is “Yes.” If the answer is, “No” they will be questioned individually out of the presence of the others for more information to challenge or pass the juror for cause on the subject of pretrial publicity. If a challenge for cause is denied, the party asserting the challenge likely will use a peremptory challenge later on to get rid of that person.

2) Opinions about the death penalty: Jurors are told that they have to be questioned regarding their opinions about the death penalty before the trial starts because there will not be an opportunity to question them later, if the defendant is convicted. Therefore, they are told to assume guilt when they are questioned. Invariably, a majority of the time spent selecting a jury involves the death qualification process. The test is whether the prospective juror could weigh the aggravating and mitigating evidence and render a verdict according to the jury instructions. Anyone who would automatically vote for the death penalty, if the defendant is convicted as charged, will be excused for cause, Same is true for anyone who would automatically vote for LWOP because they are opposed to the death penalty. This is called death qualifying a jury and it inevitably produces conviction prone jurors because so-called scrupled jurors (who oppose the death penalty) are more likely to vote not guilty than guilty. This feature is another major reason why it’s so difficult to win a death penalty trial.

The goal will be to get a panel of probably 75 or more people who have been passed for cause by both sides. The size of the panel has to be large enough so that there will be enough people left to seat a jury of 12, plus the alternates. If each side uses its full complement of 20 peremptory challenges, that would reduce the panel by 40 people, and possibly a few more, if one side or the other successfully challenges the other side’s improper use of a peremptory challenge to get rid of people based solely on race, gender or religion. Each side also gets a peremptory challenge to assert for each alternate.

It’s OK to end up with a few too many. It’s not OK to end up without enough because then you have to bring in another group of people to question.

One of the extremely bizarre aspects of the death qualification process is the effort by defense counsel to save scrupled jurors from being excused for cause by getting them to admit that they could follow the instructions and impose the death penalty despite their opposition to it, if the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances. Similarly, prosecutors befuddle jurors who would automatically vote for the death penalty by attempting to get them to admit that they could vote LWOP despite their support for the death penalty, if the mitigating circumstances outweighed the aggravating circumstances.In either case, the object is to force the opposing counsel to use one of their precious silver bullets (i.e., peremptory challenges). The hope is they will run out of ammo before you do and you’ll get some scrupled jurors on the jury.

That is more likely to happen in Massachusetts where a majority of the voters are against the death penalty than would be the case in Texas or Florida where you would be lucky to find a scrupled juror in a group of 1,000 people.

Last but not least, both sides will be on the lookout for possible ‘stealth jurors.’ They are agenda driven people who will lie to sneak on a jury and vote for a particular outcome, regardless of the evidence. This is called jury nullification when the stealth juror votes contrary to the evidence and the instructions. Both sides are likely to have support staff checking social media for potential stealth jurors.

It took 3-4 weeks for me to select a jury in every death penalty case that I tried. Then it took 6-9 months to try the cases.

Since federal court does not allow cameras or audio recordings in the courtroom, we will not be able to watch this fascinating process that is so critically important to the outcome of every trial.

And there you have it.


Judy Clarke: Congratulations on a Job Well Done Representing Jared Loughner

November 9, 2012

I write today to honor Judy Clarke, whom I know personally and professionally. In my opinion, she is the best and most effective death penalty lawyer in this country. In no small measure, Jared Loughner, Ted Kaczynski and Susan Smith owe their lives to her.

You know about Jared Loughner. With malice in mind and armed with a gun, he showed up at a meet-and-greet event conducted by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a parking lot outside a supermarket in Tucson. He attempted to kill her by shooting her at point blank range in the head. She survived but six others, including a child, did not. Eleven others were wounded. Jared Loughner will not be executed for his horrific crimes. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Ted Kaczynski is better known as the Unabomber. He engaged in a nation-wide bombing campaign against modern technology between 1978 and 1995 by planting or mailing numerous home-made bombs, killing three people and injuring 23 others. He will not be executed for his crimes. Instead, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Susan Smith killed her two young boys by trapping them in her vehicle and driving it into a lake drowning them. She told the police that an African-American man stole her car with the two boys in it and she made a plea on national television for the return of her children. She later confessed to killing them and was convicted of their murders by a jury on July 22, 1995. Instead of sentencing her to death, a South Carolina jury spared her life and she will be eligible for parole on November 4, 2024.

Judy Clarke is almost invisible. She never seeks publicity and never attempts to try her cases in the court of public opinion. She treats her clients with the utmost respect and works quietly and diligently behind the scenes to gain their trust. She humanizes them to others. Perhaps better than any lawyer I know, she understands the First Commandment of Criminal Defense:

Thou canst not create a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, no matter how good you are. Some cases are dead-bang losers and you must be able to identify and dispose of them, if at all possible, without going to trial. That usually involves a plea bargain and a guilty plea.

She never shies away from a trial, however, and is very effective in trial, as the Susan Smith case proves. But she does not try loser cases, unless there is no alternative. The results speak for themselves.

Judy always gives credit to those who work with and assist her, realizing that she could not do what she does without their help.

I know how good you are, Judy.

Congratulations on your successful efforts to save Jared’s life.


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